Rear-view mirror

Something a little different this month. As many of us crave to be able to physically attend a motor sporting event and experience the sights, sounds, smells and excitement again, 85 years ago South Africans were having the same desires – which, thankfully, had nothing to do with a pandemic. On 1 January 1936, the 2nd South African Grand Prix was held in East London and for C.E.B. this meant a family holiday to attend a world class motor sport event. Take a short time out and enjoy this contemporaneous report of a day at the Prince George Circuit…    

I am writing this the day after the Grand Prix, so if I sound embittered please forgive me. I know that in a few days time, when this violent sunburn has eased a bit and the bruises on my arms and legs has ceased to pain, I shall be talking in quite a different strain. Next week, if anyone asks me how I enjoyed watching the race, I shall in all probability enthuse wildly and say, “it was topping! Simply grand! Wouldn’t have missed it for worlds!”

But today – being the day after the great event – I say emphatically “never again!”

We had been told that 100,000 people were expected to witness the Grand Prix, so, to be sure of finding some place where we would be able to watch mad men in cars travelling over 100 mph, we rose at dawn. A glance at the sky and the wet streets made my wife declare: “Well, there will be no race today!” At once the three kiddies began to howl with disappointment, and it took us some time to reassure them that although the skies were grey and thundery now, by the time we were ready the sun would be shining. We had a hurried breakfast, trying to attend to the children’s wants and feed ourselves at the same time; but I, for one, had a very small foundation for the long day in front of us, but who cared? Was not this the day we had talked of all through the year? Was not this one of the reasons for our holiday being spent in East London? And what did a little food, more or less, matter on this day of days?

As we packed basket after basket into the car, round tins, flat tins, thermos flasks and coats, rugs and cushions, I asked my wife whether we were going for a week or a day, but she answered, as she always does on these occasions, “well, you never know, better to be sure than sorry!”

Amid the shouts of goodbye from the nurse and cook, and amid screams of joy from the three children, we set off for the Prince George Circuit to watch the Grand Prix, which was to start at 1.30 that afternoon. As we neared the Buffalo Bridge we saw a line of cars slowly wending their way along and we joined up in line. How we exclaimed and how thrilled we were when we were told that ours was the 2,250th car that had passed over the bridge since morning. This was fine. Our expectations were being fulfilled, and how joyous we all were.

We parked our car, with hundreds of others, in H parking area, just about 9 o’clock in the morning and then looked anxiously about for a good place to sit. My wife and I gathered the baskets, tins, thermos flasks, coats, rugs and cushions and with the children skipping happily beside us we set out for a spot as near the grandstand as possible. The sun broke through the clouds and we began to feel uncomfortable, but we trudged happily on and after about half an hour, found “the best spot on the course” and proceeded to dump the articles we were lugging along. “I want some water,” wailed the youngest. “Water, yes of course,” but where was the water? We had tea, we had ginger beer but no water, and so the wail went on. “Whew, it’s hot,” exclaimed my wife, and those two cries fill my waking and my sleeping hours. How many times that day I heard the cry “I want some water” and “Whew, it’s hot,” I would not like to say, but ask any father who found himself in the same position that day and he will probably say, “a million times”.

The sun blazed down, a cool breeze sprang up, then died away, and we sat on and slowly roasted. Everything we touched was burning hot, the children cried for water, the wife talked of the heat, and the time dragged on. We ate some lunch out of one the many baskets and drank tea out of the numerous flasks, and at last the signal that the road was closed was given.

As I looked round on the vast open spaces around the track I reflected that every man, woman and child in Africa could have gathered there, and there would still have been a space for us. I thought: “there are some poor fools here who actually slept in their cars last night to be sure of getting a good view!”

As the first car streaked past us we forgot the heat and weariness of the morning and were keyed up to fever pitch. I had a chart on which I feverishly scribbled the numbers of the passing cars so that we should be certain of the position of each one. Half an hour went past and my wife and I were nearly quarrelling over the chart sheet so anxious were we to get it correct. An hour went by and then a familiar cry,””I want some water,” sounded behind me. I became aware of the burning sun, a face which felt as though on fire, the hard ground beneath me.

The wind changed and fine rain began to fall and there was a scramble for the children’s coats. My wife now complained about the rain and her good hat was being spoilt, the children began to cry, and when I picked up the chart it was sodden with rain and undecipherable.

Round and round those maniacs went, then there was a thrill of excitement when the news went round that one of the drivers had crashed but was unhurt; round and round they went, and with every lap fewer cars appearing. The rain stopped and the sun blazed down fiercely, but round and round they went! “What do I care who wins,” I thought “who’s Lord Howe, anyway, who’s Leslie Meyers that I and my family should be slowly roasted in this burning heat while they go round and round,” and yet, when my wife said, “Whew, it’s hot, let’s go home,” I was horrified. “Go home before the race is finished? – never!”

Four more laps and still the cars dropped out, until it became fairly certain who the winners would be, and then the last lap and the winner streaked past amid shouts and cheers, and soon after the second car and then a long wait for the next and the next and at long last the road was again open.

I looked in despair at the distance we had to walk to the waiting car. My wife and I gathered up the scattered baskets, tins, coats, etc., and with the children beside us tramped doggedly back to the car, and with a great sigh of relief we packed children and bundles into the back and said, “Now for home!” This was at 5.15 pm, but at 9 o’clock we were still on the road going home. Somehow we could not break through that endless stream of cars and take our place in the procession of cars wending slowly homewards. We sat hour after hour waiting for an opportunity to cut in. The baskets were once again opened and flat and round tins were explored and we all felt better.

The children fell into an uneasy sleep and at last we managed to slip into line. Clutch! Gear! Accelerator! Brake! Stop! Clutch! Gear! Accelerator! Brake! Stop! And so on hour after hour, and when the stars were twinkling and the breeze blowing cold off the sea we arrived home, weary, cold and disillusioned.

But I knew that next year I shall spend my holiday in East London and again experience the thrill of the Grand Prix.

This charming story is reproduced as published in a Special to the Daily Dispatch but who C.E.B. was is, sadly, unknown. It was found in a box of old motor sport papers.

(NB: No copyright infringement is intended with any of the images used to illustrate this article.)